The Descent into Chile: Journey to Santiago

Crossing the Peru-Chile Border via Tacna/Arica

Arica Bus Station
Cruz del Sur waiting room in Arica’s bus station

At 7am we were cruising in style with Cruz del Sur from Arequipa to Tacna (S/36, CAD$12.70, 6 hours).  (Tacna is a town on the Peruvian side of the Peru-Chile border.)  We even had a fancy, private waiting room to keep out all the riff-raff.

We were lucky enough to have another comfortable ride in the front window seat (thanks to booking ahead) with “breakfast” served to our seats.

When we arrived in Tacna we arranged to take a taxi with 3 other people across the border to Arica, Chile.  This was very easy.  As soon as we stepped off the bus there were offers coming at us from all angles.  Buses coming from Peruvian towns arrive at the domestic bus station, so if you prefer having some options to choose from, you can cross the street to the international bus terminal where there are plenty of collectivo companies that cross the border regularly.  The harried man who we arranged our taxi with gave us the paperwork to fill out (tourist card: S/15, CAD$5.30).  We also paid S/20 (CAD$7) for the taxi ride, S/2 (CAD$0.70) for the departure tax in Peru, and S/1 (CAD$0.35) for the entrance tax in Chile.  Despite feeling like we had just made a deal with the devil, and thinking we may very well have just signed away our souls for a little over $13, the taxi took us exactly where we had hoped – we had arrived in Arica, Chile!

And what a difference!  Hostels are more expensive, food is higher quality, people are more likely to speak English (not necessarily a good thing), and we were officially millionaires!

Cruz del Sur Arequipa to Tacna, Peru
Playing bingo on the Cruz del Sur bus to Tacna. Had we known the prize was free bus tickets, we would have played to win!

Arica, Chile

Chinchorro beach, Arica, Chile
A balmy evening on Chinchorro beach with El Morro in the background.
September 25, 2010

After crossing the border from Peru to Chile, we settled into Sunny Days Hostel (CLP10,000/CAD$21 per person for a private double with en suite, kitchen, and breakfast) and then headed straight to the beach. Although the water wasn’t warm enough for swimming, the beach was clean, so we paddled and sun bathed for a bit. We ventured in to the market to find some food for dinner. The markets in Peru had not exactly been an enjoyable experience; there were too many live animals being slaughtered and then not refrigerated for my liking. However, in Chile it seems they have just the right amount of fresh vegetables and boundless amounts of ripe avocados, and refrigerated meats to make the markets an extremely enjoyable place. We made omelettes and avocado salad for dinner.

San Marcos Cathedral, Arica, Chile
Behind San Marcos Cathedral.
The next day we were ready to take on a walking tour of Arica. The city has a pedestrian area along 21 de May; the best we’d seen in South America yet. The jaunt up to Morro de Arica (the cliff that juts out at the southern end of Arica) was great. The view was amazing and the statue of Jesus provided hours of entertainment. We headed back down to see some of the other notable buildings we had missed on the way up.

View from the top of Morro de Arica, Chile
View from the top of Morro de Arica, Chile.

Pedestrian zone, Arica, Chile
Pasaje peatonal: pedestrian walkway.
We decided to hit the grocery store and finally try some Chilean wine. We paid about $3.50 and got a decent bottle of Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon for dinner.

Ryan still wasn’t feeling too well. He was insisting that it was altitude sickness even though we were back at sea level again. Hmmm.

We bought our tickets with Pullman-Fichtur to Iquique at the bus station (CLP5000/$10).

Iquique, Chile

Pedestrianised street in Iquique, Chile
Calle Baquedano, Iquique, Chile.

September 27, 2010
The bus from Arica took about 4 hours and cost CLP5000/$10.

Iquique was a surprise. It seemed like exactly the kind of place tourists would love, but thankfully they were few and far between. We stayed at Backpackers Hostel (CLP16000/$33 double room, shared bathroom) which had a great feeling to it. There was a kitchen, a bar, internet, and upstairs there was a small balcony with a great view of the ocean where we sat, ate dinner, and watched the sun set.

View from the balcony terrace at Backpacker's Hostel
View from the balcony terrace at Backpacker’s Hostel.
Sunset from the Backpacker's Hostel terrace
Sunset from the Backpacker’s Hostel terrace.

The next day we walked the town. The main street, which is pedestrianized, has a wooden boardwalk all along it. The houses along the main road had a slight wild west feel to them. The main square was very well-kept, and the fountains were even running.

Downtown Iquique, Chile
Downtown Iquique on Sunday.
Arturo Prat Square, Iquique, Chile
Plaza Arturo Prat

Not into surfing? Take a day trip from Iquique to Salitrera Humberstone: one of the most famous, and largest, nitrate mines in northern Chile; now a ghost town (more details — and beautiful photos — here!).

Our next stop is Antofagasta, Chile.

Antofagasta, Chile

September 28, 2010

[There is no photographic evidence of what follows]

And now we get to the part of our story where everything fell apart for a day. It was bound to happen. Despite all our careful planning, something was bound to not go according to plan.

At 10:30 in the morning we left from Iquique, Chile for Antofagasta with Pullman (CLP8000/$16.40, 7 hours). We arrived at about 5:30pm, found a cab easily, and asked him to take us to the first hostel on our list. He went and asked his colleagues where Hotel Hostal del Norte was (not a good sign) and then we were off. We drove for 10 or 15 minutes. We pulled up to a girl at the side of the road and our driver asked if she knew where the hostel was. She didn’t know. This was confusing, especially since we had given him the exact address. Next we pulled up at a grocery store and he asked a few people there. No luck. He wandered into the grocery store, leaving the taxi blocking the parking lot. Still no luck. We asked him just to take us to the main square. “No, no, no, no,” he replied. He assured us he knew where he was going. He stopped another taxi driver who seemed to give him directions. Finally, he found the road the hostel was on. Number 3162 we told him in Spanish. We could see that we were around number 3700, so we knew we still had a little further to drive. The taxi driver was shaking his head like he couldn’t find it. He was driving extremely slowly, searching for the hostel. Finally, it came into sight. “Alli!” I shouted, pointing. We lunged to escape the cab as soon as it came to a stop. “Mil disculpe,” he said as he took our money and drove off. At first we thought we were being taken for a ride, literally; although, it is very possible that he was just really, really bad at his job.

At this point, we cut to the horror-movie-style reveal of the hostel we had chosen for our night in Antofagasta. It was a creaking, dripping, grungy nightmare in a neighbourhood solely populated by car part dealers. Looks were exchanged, and no words needed to be spoken. We set off, on foot, to the next hostel on the list. Without a map.

We walked Antofagasta’s downtown core. It was verging on 7:30pm, and no hostels in sight. Our bags felt heavy, I was feeling under the weather, and Ryan was still recovering from his “altitude sickness”; we decided to abandon the budget and shell out for an emergency hotel. The prices of hotels ranged from US$60 (very seedy) to US$80 (less seedy). That night we learned a new Spanish word: completo. Not good. Eventually, we found Hotel Ancla (CLP32500/$66.50). The room was so-so. We’d stayed in some hostels that were nicer, but they had a buffet breakfast in the morning. After a tiring day, we ate McDonald’s for dinner and it was fucking delicious.

Next stop: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
Valley of the Moon.
September 29, 2010
We took Tur Bus from Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama at 10:10am (CLP7900/$16.20, 5 hours). When we arrived at the bus station a woman from the hostel we wanted to stay at was trying to get people to stay at her place, so we were lucky enough to get a ride in her truck. We stayed at Hostal Laskar Cabur (CLP16000/$32.75 for a double room with shared bathroom), and it was great place; set in traditional little adobe huts. The bed was very comfortable, and the kitchen had tea and coffee free all day. The courtyard was comfortable with hammocks, tables, and a nightly fire.

Main square and church of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
Iglesia de San Pedro in the main square.
The next day, we rented bicycles from La Herradura (CLP3000/$6.15 half-day rates) and cycled to Valle de la Luna. Unfortunately, my chest cold would not let me cycle too far into the park, but it was definitely the most unique place I’ve ever been. It really was like being on another planet, and the volcanoes in the background just added to the mysteriousness. Later in the day, we took a hose-riding excursion with the same company (CLP5000/$10.25 for one hour with a minimum of two hours). We went on a two-hour ride through Death Valley and stopped on some massive sand dunes for a photo opp.

Volcanoes are the backdrop for Valle de la Luna.
Valley of the Moon with volcanoes in the distance.
Hose riding with La Herradura
Taking a break on the dunes of death valley.
There is a lot to do in San Pedro, but most of it is quite expensive so you have to pick and choose. In my opinion, bicycles are the best way to go as the surrounding area and parks are relatively flat.

Next up is an overnight bus to Copiapo leaving at 7:30pm.

Copiapo, Chile

Main square, Copiapo, Chile.
Plaza de San Martin in Copiapo, Chile
October 1, 2010

We left San Pedro on TurBus (CLP16000/$33) at 7:30pm and arrived in Copiapo at 6:45am. We only had a semi-cama seat, but we both slept fine and the time seemed to go by very quickly.

We stayed at Residencial Rocio (CLP12000/$24.50) private twin with cable TV, shared bathroom). The owners were very friendly and there was a nice patio to sit and eat at. The rooms needed some updating; a coat of paint wouldn’t go amiss. Copiapo is a mining town and was just a place to rest on our way to La Serena. While we were in Copiapo, they were in the midst of a mining crisis with 33 workers trapped in a collapsed mine. They were trapped from the beginning of August to the end of October.

Next up: we are off to enjoy the serenity of La Serena, Chile.

La Serena, Chile

October 2, 2010

Since TurBus was twice our budgeted price, we decided to travel with Espreso Norte (CLP7000/$14.30, ~5 hours). It was a comfortable ride from Copiapo and they served tea and a biscuit. We had a good feeling about La Serena — probably because of the name — but we were confident it would be a nice place.

The deserted downtown streets of La Serena on a Sunday
The deserted downtown streets of La Serena on a Sunday

We weren’t disappointed. It was as serene as the name implies: palm trees, quiet town squares, pedestrian streets, and miles of empty soft sand beach abound.  There are some nice churches around town, although most of them are not as old as they claim to be, having been destroyed by either earthquakes or pirates at various points in history.  We happily whiled away some time in La Serena’s main square, the Plaza de Armas, where we watched children drive around the fountain in electric toy cars.  A short walk southwest of the square is the peaceful and well-maintained Japanese Garden.  Entrance is only CLP1000/$2 for adults, and it’s a nice spot to spend a couple of hours.

The Plaza de Armas and the cathedral of La Serena.
The Plaza de Armas and the cathedral of La Serena.
Japanese Garden
Japanese Garden

About a twenty-minute walk from the Japanese Garden, straight down the palm tree-lined Francisco de Aguirre boulevard, lies miles of beautiful and empty beach, and La Serena’s striking lighthouse.  The water was cold thanks once again to the Humboldt Current, but the sand was soft.

The walk to the beach
The walk to the beach
The lighthouse
The lighthouse

Beach as far as the eye can see.
Beach as far as the eye can see.
While in La Serena, we stayed at Hostel Maria Casa on Los Rojas, close to the bus station, town centre, and supermarkets.  I would have to say it was one of my favourite places that we had stayed at so far.  The family had a beautiful garden with plenty of tables to sit at and enjoy it.  We had full use of the family kitchen, wi-fi, and true local family atmosphere.  We had a double room with shared bathroom for CLP12000/$25 per night.

After a couple of days in La Serena, we finally made it to the capital of Chile: Santiago.